At Top Hat Engage in Austin, Dr. José Antonio Bowen, author of Teaching Naked, challenged faculty to embrace the role of a ‘cognitive coach’ in the classroom. This involves shifting the emphasis from content delivery to the processes that support meaningful learning. For Bowen, this is all about promoting engagement, optimism and agency to get students to put learning into practice.

To help make the trip, Bowen presented a simple framework. Playfully referred to as the ‘New 3 Rs,’ this process involves prioritizing relationships, resilience and reflection to help learners get the most value out of your course.

What are Bowen’s 3 Rs?

  • Relationships: Lesson delivery is only one slice of the pie. Getting to know your students on a personal level creates a more inclusive and supportive environment that encourages them to take risks and lean into learning.
  • Resilience: Help students become comfortable with ambiguity and failure. Students will inevitably forget parts of what you teach them. Remind learners that this cycle of forgetting and re-learning is an essential part of the journey and developing a sense of intellectual humility.
  • Reflection: Give students opportunities to integrate the feedback they’ve been given. Instead of handing out papers or exams with letter grades attached, make time to process the feedback you’ve provided. What worked and what didn’t? How might they approach things differently in the future? Create spaces for students to reflect and think critically before revealing how they actually did. 

Here are a few additional tactics you can use to embrace your role as a ‘cognitive coach.’

1. Keep learning pleasantly frustrating

We’re likely to abandon an activity altogether if it proves too easy or too challenging. Making learning ‘optimal’ involves finding the middle ground that allows for greater motivation and persistence. Bowen uses a fitness coach as a metaphor: “Watching somebody else do push ups isn’t useful. Your job is to get students to do push ups for themselves.” He argues that, like coaches in the gym, effective educators use the psychology behind motivation to make learning fun and enjoyable. Give them a manageable task (“can you do five pushups?”) and then push them a little further (“can you give me five more?”) to build their confidence as they go.

Bowen’s advice: Make the challenge associated with learning a new topic appealing through your assessment techniques. Smaller, bite-sized assessments with frequent feedback create a sense of momentum. This also offers students opportunities to reflect and build on what’s working and discard what isn’t.

2. Shift your cognitive load according to the interests of your students

When students are intrinsically motivated, they’re driven by personal satisfaction and interest as opposed to external rewards. Using examples or case studies that feel foreign to learners may take more mental effort to absorb. Instead, incorporate examples, names and terminology that reflect the demographics and interests of your students to pique their interest from the get go.

Bowen’s advice: Make your assessments reflective of our present moment while giving students a sense of freedom, or agency, in how they apply their knowledge. For example, instead of referencing trains or football in your problems, try using a broader social or political concept that all students are likely to be familiar with. Go one step further by asking learners to explain a concept using language and a medium (such as video) that they understand. “I’m not babying my students—I haven’t dropped my standards. I’ve just added care,” Bowen points out.

3. Position course policies as invitations

Wherever possible, remove barriers for students to access you via office hours, email and other communication channels. Getting to know students for who they are and under what conditions they thrive is an essential first step. “Instead of asking students, ‘what do you know about my subject or discipline?’ at the start of your course, ask them to tell you under what circumstances they do their best work,” Bowen advises. The next step involves translating outdated, static course documents—such as the syllabus—into an interactive format that lets students get a better glimpse into who you are. Your enthusiasm may get lost through an eight-page document. Short introductory videos may do a better job of creating a class climate that promotes belonging and engagement from the start.

Bowen’s advice: Without realizing it, the way you frame certain aspects of your course can predict engagement. Consider changing the term ‘office hours’ to ‘student success hours’ to reduce the stress or confusion and make participation more inviting. 

4. Model failure (not just certainty) in front of students

Students want to see you as a real human being. That means not just showing them what you know about your subject area, but being honest about what you don’t know. “If you’re only modeling certainty in the classroom, you’re sending the wrong message. You need to model ambiguity, humility and even failure for your students,” Bowen says.

Bowen’s advice: It’s okay to not have all the answers to student questions at the ready. If a student poses a question in class that you can’t answer confidently, consider telling them that you’ll complete some more research after class and get back to them. Doing so empowers students and serves as a reminder that they, too, can be teachers in the classroom.

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